Friday, December 2, 2011

A Joyful Viewing Experience: The Artist

This review originally appeared on the San Francisco Appeal.

I admit that going into the movie "The Artist," I was a little skeptical. I feared a black-and-white silent movie made by a French director would be a boring slog about the death of REAL Cinema, and was thankful that its running time was a mere 100 minutes long. Indeed, "The Artist" is black-and-white, and silent, (for the most part), and in classic Hollywood's square aspect ratio; it's about as far from a modern 3D epic as one can get.

And thank goodness for that.

I'm glad to say my negative assumptions about it were completely wrong, and I probably haven't had such a joyful viewing experience since my first viewing of "Amelie."

Set in Hollywood during the final years of silent movies, the film focuses on George Valentin, (Jean Dujardin), a Douglas Fairbanks-type action star who acts solely with his eyebrows and a smile that's a mile wide. His sidekick, both on screen and off, is his faithful Jack Russell terrier.

An accidental meeting between him and an ingenue fan, Peppy Miller, (Berenice Bejo), gives the young acting hopeful the break she's been hoping for, and soon her star begins to rise.

Meanwhile, Valentin refuses to believe talkies are anything but a passing fancy, and when the studio boss (John Goodman) axes his next picture, George decides to use his own money and produce and direct the silent epic himself. History can tell us how that works out for him.

Director Michel Hazanavicius's eye for detail is spot-on and there are moments in the movie when it really does look and feel like a classic silent film, albeit a really sharp and good looking one.

At times, it plays more like a film that would have been made during the era, than a film about the era; the goal is not historical accuracy, but historical homage--to the great silents, but also to classic talkies like "Singin' In the Rain" and "A Star Is Born."

And while there is a lot here true film geeks will love, it is not stuffy film fandom wankery. It is, first and foremost, a fun movie.

Of course this is not new territory for director and star, who have also made a pair of spoofs/homages to 1960s spy movies, ("OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies" and "OSS 117 : Lost in Rio").  But "The Artist" is a little less jokey than those films, and has a lot more heart; the two leads bring both brilliant comedy and pathos to their roles. (Dujardin does multiple takes of eyebrow acting that bring the laughs each time, and Bejo's moment of pantomime with a tuxedo jacket is something I'll never forget.)

I imagine for people who have never seen a silent movie, "The Artist" might be a tough sell. But what makes the movie work so well is how it is able to utilize silent movie form in a way that never feels intrusive, or overshadows the film's sentiment. The intertitles are used sparingly, but you are never lost wondering what people are actually saying because the acting and visuals are so strong.

The movie isn't perfect: The music, which, in a silent movie, is going to be ever-present, is a tad generic and annoying, (apart from one sequence which inexplicably uses Bernard Herrmann's "Scene d"Amour" from Hitchcock's "Vertigo"). And the middle part of the film, which takes the story from romantic comedy into the realm of melodrama, is a tad too long.

But even that, in the end, works in the film's favor. Just as I reached the point of frustration with George Valentin's stubbornness and pride, the answer to the question, "Why doesn't he just make a talkie??" is revealed in a brilliant bit of dialogue that both perfectly ends the film, and sums up everything I felt while watching it.

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